The Mental Health Struggles of Single and Divorced Men
An exploration of factors that can harm the mental health of unmarried men.
Posted February 4, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
The phrase single men is an umbrella term describing men who are never married, widowed, separated, or divorced. Interestingly, a large corpus of research indicates that single men have higher rates of mental health issues compared to married men and single women.
For example, a large-scale U.S. study found that unmarried men aged 40-60 were 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide compared to both similarly-aged married men and unmarried women. Similarly, another large U.S. study found that unmarried men aged 40-75 years had a 2-fold risk of suicide compared to married men of the same age group.
Other research indicates that single men have higher rates of depression than married men. For example, one study found over double the rate of depression in single men (3.6 percent) compared to married men (1.7 percent). Other studies have found that single men have much higher rates of addictions than other demographics including married men and single women.
Stigmas and Stereotypes
Evidence suggests that a variety of factors intersect to increase the risk of mental health issues among single men. To start, recent research indicates that single men experience abnormally high rates of loneliness, which can leave them alienated and isolated from mainstream society. Such loneliness is a risk factor for a range of mental health issues including depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
This isolation does not occur in a social vacuum. While many men may choose a life of solitude, some single men may face harmful stigmas and stereotypes when trying to integrate into society.
For example, some research indicates that unmarried men of a certain age are typically perceived in unflattering terms, and sometimes considered an untamed threat to the moral social order. These stereotypes are embodied in archetypal fictional characters such as Svengali, Don Juan, and Lothario—depicting single men as a corruptive presence lurking in the shadows of civilized society.
Such stigmas and stereotypes can have harmful consequences, fueling policies and procedures that marginalize single men, young and old alike. For example, some aggressive campus campaigns against so-called "rape culture" have been criticized for implying that all single young men are potential brutes on the verge of pillage.
Similarly, many single and separated men report a negative experience within family court, with statistics indicating that less than 1 in 5 men are awarded custody of their children. This disparity may be fueled in part by common-held stereotypes that single-fathers are ill-suited to raise children.
Worse still, some policies and procedures implicitly associate single men with pedophilia. One of the most egregious and well-documented examples of this phenomenon is a common airline policy that prohibits solo male passengers from sitting next to an unaccompanied minor, with such men being asked to swap seats with a female passenger. While very few men actually experience the humiliation of being asked to swap airline seats, this sexist policy is indicative of the wider societal suspicion targeted at single men, which can harm mental health.
Even the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged these harms after being asked to move airline seats himself in 2006, writing of "the terrible damage that is done by this system of presuming guilt in the entire male population just because of the tendencies of a tiny minority."
Research indicates that divorced men have a higher rate of mental health issues compared to never-married, separated, and widowed men, as well as divorced women. Indeed, one study found that divorced men were eight times more likely to kill themselves compared to divorced women. This implies that the psychosocial experience of divorce and the subsequent singledom can be especially painful for these typically older men.
Issues of loneliness and social isolation may be particularly prominent in this demographic. For example, evidence suggests that women are more likely to maintain larger networks of friends and extended family when married, whereas men are more likely to rely primarily on their partner and children for social interaction and social support. This means that men tend to experience a more intense decrease in social support following a divorce, which can leave them lonely and isolated precisely when they need a social safety net.
Similarly, divorce can be a process of painful loss for all parties involved, but especially for men. Indeed, one review of the literature noted that "divorce may be particularly devastating for men because they are mainly the ones who lose their home, children, and family." This separation from children can be particularly painful, leading to a gaping void that can be experienced as a living bereavement for the men involved. Research indicates that this can breed shame, guilt, alcohol abuse, a sense of failure, and psychological distress. Indeed, one study found that separation from children has been cited as a primary cause of male suicide in many coroner’s inquests.
The Way Ahead
Single men are an ignored demographic, and there are few specific services and supports devoted to their well-being. Worse still, unmarried men can be stigmatized and demonized in certain sectors of society, which can leave many single men questioning any notion of an inclusive society. All this can have a harmful impact on their mental health.
This situation requires concerted action. First, any policies or practices reliant on stereotypes of single men should be dismantled and replaced by non-discriminatory procedures. Second, there is a need for specific support services to help vulnerable single men, especially men undergoing a painful divorce, who are at increased risk of mental health issues. Third, all sectors of society including health care providers, educational institutions, and employers need to reflect on their activities to ensure they are truly inclusive and engaging to single men.
All this can help improve mental health in this forgotten population.
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